Last year, Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” enjoyed a pop-culture renaissance. An Internet-based phenomenon that unexpectedly linked Web surfers to the video for the song in question, “Rickrolling” broke into the mainstream when The New York Times reported that an Astley impersonator interrupted an Eastern Washington University women’s basketball game with an impromptu performance of the song, when in fact it was a video hoax. Subsequently, the song—generally considered the poster child for the synthed-out excess of overproduced ’80s pop—was played at several public events, occasionally greeted by a chorus of boos. Conversely, listeners with an appreciation for irony ate the gimmick up.
Barry Manilow might be the least ironic musician on the planet. To him, Astley’s tune, which Manilow covers on his recently released album of #1 hits from the ’80s, is “a pop-dance record that was as catchy as any I’ve ever heard.”
“I’ve always loved the production,” Manilow adds. “They broke all the rules on that record.”
You could say that Manilow’s doing the same on Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs of the Eighties. Who else but Manilow could get away with earnest, heartfelt interpretations of “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross, “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” by Chicago, Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, and Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” a critical pockmark on the R&B legend’s record that got its comeuppance in High Fidelity?
Of the 12 tracks assembled, Manilow says, “They all had to be #1 songs from the decade, so when the public picks up the CD, they jump out at them. These may not be my favorite songs from the ’80s, but [they’re] the public’s favorite songs.”
The ’80s collection marks the fourth Manilow has cut that celebrate the top songs of a particular decade, dating back to the ’50s. But don’t look for him to broach the ’90s anytime soon. “Do you really want to hear me sing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?” quips Manilow. (Yes, we do.) “These [the ’80s tunes] are wonderfully made records. In the ’50s and ’60s, they weren’t wonderfully made records. But when you got to the ’80s, man, they really knew how to make records—and George Michael’s was one of the most beautifully made.”
The record in question is “Careless Whisper,” which Manilow also sings on this latest release. For the most part, he stays faithful to the original arrangements—except on the Wonder track, which Manilow jazzes up to the point that it belongs in a hotel lounge.
“I did that kind of thing to every one of my songs for all four [cover] albums,” he says. “I go far away from the original and pull myself back, because the public doesn’t want to hear an upside-down version of a song they love. [But] this one happened to work out fine.”
Since 2005, Manilow has performed almost exclusively as a headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton. What’s appealing about this arrangement, he says, is “not going on the road.” Sunday night’s Everett gig is one of two he’ll play in Washington state (the other’s in Spokane on Saturday) before returning to the desert, and it’s a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “I’m happy to be able to do it,” says Manilow. “[Cystic fibrosis] stinks.”
Back when Manilow was breaking into the biz, standard orchestral arrangements and solitary crooners like Sinatra, Mathis, and Bennett still occupied space at pop music’s epicenter. But those days have long since passed.
“It is kind of lonely up on that stage,” says the 65-year-old Manilow. “There aren’t that many people doing what I do. There’s never been [anybody like me], by the way. I have my own little slice of the pie. It’s small, but it’s mine. My first album had so many different styles to it, they didn’t know where to put me.”
When asked to tick off his favorite up-and-comers, Manilow offers something of a surprise. “Katy Perry: She’s the real deal; she’s a star,” he gushes. “Jennifer [Hudson] is terrific too. But this Katy Perry, she’s got me. I’m a fan.”
While Manilow won’t entirely rule out another cover album somewhere down the road, he’s eager to prove that he can still write the songs of love and special things. “I’ve got to get back to writing my own things,” he says. “These cover albums are not torture—believe me, I love doing it. It’s just that I miss songwriting.”
To read a transcript of SW‘s interview with Manilow, visit seattleweekly.com/reverb.